From the archives: City swung to a military beat

From the archives: City swung to a military beat
From the archives: City swung to a military beat

Royal 22nd Regimental Band, circa 1943-1965. Military bands were a major source of entertainment more than a century ago. Canada Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada

This story was first published on July 23, 2006, in the Montreal Gazette.


“We understand that a public grand mounting and trooping of the colours will take place on the Champ de Mars at 10 o’clock this morning. The 100th Royal Canadian Regiment will furnish the colours, band and drums.”

The Gazette, Thursday, July 18, 1867


There was a time, a century ago and more, when military-band music seemed to fill the air of Montreal. Soldiers were far more prominent than they are today. Leading citizens and ordinary working men alike joined Canadian militia units out of a sense of duty and, it must be said, for social reasons, too. Regular British army units were garrisoned here until 1871.

The bands played at ceremonial parades and while soldiers drilled. They played during recruitment drives and military funerals. They conducted troops to and from ships and trains. But bands were also part of what passed for mass media, providing entertainment for the public at large.

The newspapers of the time make it plain just how pervasive military bands were in the middle years of the 19th century. In The Gazette of July 18, 1867, for example, not only do we read that the band of the Royal Canadian Regiment would participate in trooping the colours at the Champ de Mars that morning. The previous afternoon, we also read, another military band accompanied a young militiaman to his early grave.

Private Wakefield was part of the No. 2 Company of artillery of the Grand Trunk Brigade, and had drowned in the Lachine Rapids. “The fine brass band of the Brigade preceded the cortege, playing the Dead March,” we said, “after which came the firing party followed by the hearse, and then a company of artillery followed by a long train of relatives and friends.”

On other occasions, military bands played simply to entertain. In that same edition of The Gazette, we read that the band of the Prince Consort’s Own Rifle Brigade would perform in the gardens of Viger Square that evening, weather permitting. The following evening, it was to be the turn of the 25th Regiment, King’s Own Borderers, on the campus of McGill University.

Such concerts were open to all and were free. They were a delightful part of a warm summer evening. Military bands even performed at commercial or private events; permission had to be sought from the regiment’s commanding officer, but it was rarely denied.

For example, before the 25th Regiment could play at McGill that Friday evening, it had a Thursday engagement that would take it across the river to Varennes and back. An advertisement in The Gazette invited Montrealers to a moonlight excursion on the steamer Chambly, with music provided by the regiment’s “splendid band.”

The following day we reported that the excursion had been wonderful. For a time on the river it was cloudy, but the rain held off and on the homeward leg the moon finally came out. The wind dropped as well. “Dancing was resumed with renewed spirit forward,” we said, “and kept up until the boat arrived at Montreal, where God Save the Queen was given by the whole force of the company, accompanied by the band.”

It’s not clear precisely what instruments made up the four bands in these Gazette stories, though fifes, bugles and drums were likely included. That other instrument of war, the great Highland bagpipe, was probably not among them, however. The only Scottish regiment mentioned, the King’s Own Borderers (an ancestor of today’s Royal Regiment of Scotland), was a Lowland regiment originally raised in Edinburgh.

Nevertheless, the skirl of the “piob mhor,” as it is known in Gaelic, was often heard in the streets of Montreal. Even if a Highland regiment didn’t have a formal pipe band, it most likely would have several pipers, so important was their playing to the men.

A sign of this importance lies behind a brief item in The Gazette of Jan. 2, 1862, concerning the first public parade of the Royal Light Infantry. This Montreal militia unit, a precursor to the Black Watch of Canada, was in the process of being organized.

There was a snafu that day, however, and the Crystal Palace on Ste. Catherine St. where the new regiment was meant to assemble was not available. So, we continued, “the regiment paraded in the street, and then marched down to the Place d’Armes, headed by the band of the regiment.”

The interesting thing is that Royals already had a fully fledged band, presumably complete with bagpipes, even before the regiment was officially gazetted on Jan. 31. A Highland regiment without bagpipes was unthinkable.

Related

all right reserved for Montreal Gazette

Get the latest news delivered to your inbox

Follow us on social media networks

NEXT One in three nurseries could shut in a year